Have we reached a tipping point ?

I am on my way to attend the annual University Vocational Awards Council (UVAC) conference on  for the first time since 2011. I always enjoyed the conference but have not prioritised attendance for the last two years for one reason or another.

“UVAC is a not-for-profit organisation set up in 1999 by the higher and further education sector. We provide an independent voice for our members on matters relating to higher level vocational learning. Our mission is to champion higher level vocational learning”.

I’m attending as both a work-based learning practitioner and a blogger (inspired by the Blog squad at CIPD) for UVAC and the Journal of Higher Education, Skills and Work Based Learning or as all the cool kids call it ‘HESWBL’ (ripped from Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast or ‘RHLSTP’).

The main aim of the UVAC conference is to review trends, political decisions, employer needs and University practice in vocational higher level work-based learning.

Work-Based Learning (WBL) in Higher Education

The last 20 years has seen significant growth in WBL as a distinct field of business within universities rather than a consitutuent component within disciplinary or professional fields. It has long been acknowledged that high-level learning doesn’t just occur at university and its physical locations, but goes on in many other locations too. Controversial!

There are many Universities that have excellent systems and processes that enable them to work effectively and efficiently with employers to meet their workforce development needs by using the workplace as a site of learning. Of course this concept is not new for vocational education, however higher education grappled with it for a long time before accepting that YES you can learn in the workplace and that it can be recognised by a university as having academic merit and credit.

For my non-university colleagues let me just say that this is no small achievement, however we have a long way to go before WBL in its purest form is well established as everyday business.

I’ve been playing in the space where academia meets business in an attempt to make it easier for  learners, employers and universities to access higher level qualifications using the workplace as a site of learning. It is my passion and my ambition (indeed the title of my blog) that “The Twain SHALL Meet”.

I’ve had the pleasure of learning at the feet of  WBL legends  Professor David Young and Ann Minton (@annimint) who schooled me in the fine arts of WBL in higher education. The 3 of us spent many an hour discussing and writing about work-based learning,  we developed programmes for and with employers and employees and refined our practice over a few years. The experience for me was extremely exciting as it allowed me to be in an academic environment but close to business and therefore up-to-date and relevant.

Defining WBL 

We love a definition in academia, so in keeping with tradition there I have outlined a continuum of WBL.

  • learning through work – learning while working
  • learning for work – learning how to do new or existing things better
  • learning at work – learning that takes place in the workplace
  • learning from work – ‘curriculum’ that grows out of the experience of the learner, their work context and their community of practice.

    Adapted from Nixon et al (2006)

In traditional UG programmes one often finds WBL modules within a degree programme as part of the drive towards ‘experiential learning’, in most cases this is learning for work. In taught PG programmes WBL learning is often extolled as a virtue of the programme, however in practice this is often learning through work i.e. the learners take a series of pre-defined modules that, in some instances, allows them to use a project or scenario at work as part of the assessment process. There are clear benefits to both versions of WBL and many learners find the process of completing the project in a safe environment extremely beneficial.

Further along the continuum is WBL in its purest form namely ‘learning at work’ and ‘learning from work’.

The key principles of pure WBL is the recognition of informal learning and allowing learners to decide what they  learn, how they go about learning it and how they demonstrate their learning. The learners are involved in the planning, managing and driving forward of their learning. In essence they can decide how and what they learn from work. This is 70:20:10 years before it was common parlance!

The definitions may be extremely nuanced but the differences in approach and learner experience are fundamental. It is the difference between learning being learner led and the teacher sharing their knowledge of the subject, there is clearly a need for both however our access to knowledge knows no bounds and therefore WBL in universities should be in the ascendency.

Have we reached a tipping point?

Well that’s what I am looking to discover tomorrow at the conference. There have been huge changes in the last 5 years to the higher education market with more turmoil to come, yet the number of part-time learners and employer sponsored learners has never been lower.

Some questions for employers/part time learners

Why are enrolments to part-time programmes so low? Is it solely due to funding?

Are we in academia doing enough to make our programmes accessible and attractive to working people or are we stuck in an model that no longer works?

Would a negotiated curriculum be more attractive to employers?

I hope to come away from the conference with a clearer understanding of the following:

  •  The government’s agenda in relation to vocational skills, higher apprenticeships and funding of part-time UG and PG learning.
  • Current WBL practice within UK HEI’s and how they are dealing with Higher Apprenticeships.
  • The workforce development priorities for employer.

I will be blogging throughout the day and tweeting from @conmossy or @heswbl. The hashtag is #uvac2014, please join in the discussions.

I would love to hear from you and discuss work-based learning in more detail.